Settling golf’s fifth-major debate, a rare ruling for Burns and a tip from fiancee helps Hardy go low

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Davis Riley is in the mix at the Country Club of Jackson, his two-day total of 137 just three shots back of the Sanderson Farms Championship lead. The 25-year-old is coming off a solid rookie season on the PGA Tour and should have been a candidate for one of the final spots on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. Coupled with a decorated amateur career and a game whose ceiling seems pretty darn high, it’s easy to wonder what a win this week would mean for Riley and where he wants to go.

But that is a matter best saved for Sunday night or whenever Riley does cross that finish line. Until that day comes, it’s time we talk about Riley’s remarks from earlier this week. Specifically, his usage of “the fifth major.”

“Yeah, anytime I can get close to home and be back in Mississippi, it’s special,” said Riley, who grew up and resides in Hattiesburg. “Sanderson Farms was one of the first tournaments that I got one of my first PGA starts at, so it’s always had a special place in my heart, and this is my fifth major, so it’s definitely one I’ve had chalked up on the calendar and would have liked to have a chance to win at one day.”

Following an opening-round 66, Riley admitted that fifth-major status places extra pressure on the week. “It does, and I think that’s probably why I haven’t played my best golf here in the past just because it’s right down the road. I have so many friends and family here. I want to perform. It just would be a really, really special tournament to win.”

Now, we have no doubt that this event hugs Riley’s heart. Even to those not in the Magnolia State the Sanderson has affectionately held the “fifth major” title. Our issue, dear friends, is that many, many other tournaments refer to themselves as “the fifth major,” so much so the phrase has lost its meaning.

Which is why we are settling it here. Our highly official, totally unscientific ranking of golf’s fifth majors:

(6) Old Q-School. Said in jest; nothing that cruel deserves a royal christening.

(5) Sanderson Farms Championship. By losing its alternate-event status it lost a bit of its romanticism.

(4) John Deere Classic. Charming, innocent and was a conduit to Jordan Spieth’s emergence. The Deere provided that hilarious shot of Zach Johnson getting spooked by an air cannon. Unclear if it is helped or hurt by D. A. Weibring winning the event three times.

(3) Your parochial buddy’s outing. If you search “fifth major” on Twitter most of the results are of average golfers posting photos from their annual getaways or outings. We know those events are sacrosanct … but, c’mon, get a little more creative with your labels.

(2) Players Championship. The best field in golf at a sneaky-delightful track with a memorable closing stretch. HOWEVER, the Players has often called itself “the fifth major” to underline its importance, and the moment you argue why you matter is the moment you prove the opposite. To the tour’s credit they have moved away from this verbiage, and, frankly, there’s a good chance the Players will earn major status in our lifetime.

But, in the present, the true fifth-major call sign goes to …

(1) Travelers Championship. If they ever turn the red umbrella in the lake to an actual green for sudden-death playoffs it might bump the PGA Championship to fifth-major status.

Other takeaways from Day 2 at the Sanderson Farms Championship.

Following a one-under first round Mackenzie Hughes was in danger of missing the cut. Now … well, his situation has improved.

Hughes jumped from the cut line to a share of the lead thanks to a nine-under 63 on Friday.

“It was really solid,” Hughes said following a bogey-free round. “I didn’t really have much stress and had a nice groove going with the irons. Hit a lot of close shots. Yeah, just really in control with that. Being in the fairway was important, but when I was in the rough I controlled it really well in the rough and gave myself looks. Felt good with the putter, which is normally a strength, so if I can start hitting it close and give myself good looks, then it’s going to turn out pretty nice.”

After finishing 14th in the 2019-20 FedEx Cup standings, the Canadian has failed to reach the Tour Championship the past two seasons. He’s better than a rank-and-file player and has shown glimpses of something more, yet those glimpses have remained just that. He’s also just 31 years old with plenty of runway to make the lead to the next tier.

To do that he needs his second-shot game, usually the bane of existence, to cooperate. Through two days in Mississippi, it’s doing just that, ranking third in the field in SG/approach. It’s a turnaround Hughes credits to a new pursuit of speed that he’s added to his training.

“I think just kind of lifting on a more regular basis,” Hughes said. “I think it’s easy to go through a tournament and say I’m not going to train this week, but I’ve been up in the gym here at the club and been putting in work up there, just even during the week, which normally I wouldn’t be doing. But trying to push a little bit harder, and also on the range, it’s just a commitment to doing it pretty much every other day, hitting drivers as hard as I can.

“I know I’ve probably gotten a few looks on the range because it looks sometimes crazy, but it’s definitely helped, and I feel like I’ve picked up a little bit of speed, which always helps in this game.”

We hope this leads to Hughes attempting to drive Bay Hill’s par-5 sixth later this season.

Fresh off a Presidents Cup victory Sam Burns is the biggest name in this event as well as its defending champ. He hasn’t gone lights out yet, although remains close enough to make a weekend move at five under.

This despite smacking a power line with a tee shot on Friday.

“Never, no,” Burns replied when asked if he had ever encountered such an incident that occurred on the par-4 ninth hole at C.C. of Jackson. “I think it’s auto re-tee is what I’ve always heard, so that’s what I did. I guess that’s right.”

It is: According to the Rules of Golf, “If it is known or virtually certain that a player’s ball hit a power line [or tower or a wire or pole supporting a power line] during the play of [specify hole number], the stroke does not count. The player must play a ball without penalty from where the previous stroke was made.”

Not that Burns was happy about the reload. “It would have felt better if I would have hit a bad one, but I hit a perfect one,” he said about his drive at the ninth. “Then I hit the next one in the left rough, so that kind of stunk, but it is what it is. I know they’re there; there’s always a possibility you can hit them, I guess.”

Though Nick Hardy had a nice two-week stretch at last season’s U.S. Open (T-14) and Travelers Championship (T-8, which is mighty fine for back-to-back major weeks), it was mostly an inauspicious rookie campaign on tour, finishing outside the top 125 at season’s end. Hardy was able to recapture his card during Korn Ferry Tour Finals and is making strides towards keeping it at the Sanderson, entering the weekend three shots back of the lead.

A performance he attributes to two tips he received earlier in the week. One from his caddie regarding his driving, and some guidance on his irons from his fiancee, Liz Elmassian, a fellow pro.

“She’s a golfer herself, so she gets the game,” Hardy explained. “She kind of knows my tendencies. There were just a couple things that I tend to do, and sometimes I need reminders. Mainly about width in the golf swing and not using my hands to pull down and just keep the width through the body. That’s really the gist of it.”

Hardy later added: “Yeah, she’s got a great eye, and very helpful having her. I love having her here. She’s like a second coach on the road. It’s great.”

If Hardy goes on to breakthrough this weekend, it might be time to put Liz on payroll.

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